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New global warming threat to world's biggest ice sheet, Durham University scientists claim
THE world’s largest ice sheet could be at greater risk of melting under global warming than previously thought, North-East scientists claim today (Wednesday, August 28).
Experts believed glaciers in East Antarctica were at less risk than those in Greenland or West Antarctica, because of the area’s extremely cold temperatures – as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius at the coast and even colder inland.
But Durham University researchers have found the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has grown and shrunk much more than previously thought over the last 50 years – and the changes coincided with periods of cooling and warming.
They say there is now an urgent need to understand how vulnerable the ice sheet is.
The sheet has 3,350 miles of coastline, is up to 2.5 miles thick and holds the vast majority of the world’s ice – enough to raise global sea levels by 50m.
Dr Chris Stokes, from Durham University’s geography department, said: “If the climate is going to warm in the future, our study shows that large parts of the margins of the East Atlantic Ice Sheet are vulnerable to the kinds of changes that are worrying us in Greenland and West Antarctica – acceleration, thinning and retreat.
“When temperatures warm in the air or ocean, glaciers respond by retreating and this can have knock-on effects further inland, where more and more ice is drawn down towards the coast.
“We need to monitor their behaviour more closely and maybe reassess our rather conservative predictions of future ice sheet dynamics in East Antarctica.”
The team studied 175 glaciers on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet’s coastline from 1963 to 2012, the first long-term project of its kind.
Three patterns emerged: in the 1970s and 1980s most glaciers shrunk as temperatures rose; in the 1990s most glaciers grew as temperatures dropped; and in the 2000s there was a mix of growth and retreat as temperatures varied.
There were much bigger changes along the sheet’s warmer Pacific coast than the cooler Ross Sea coast.
Their study is published today (Wednesday, August 28) in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
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